Libraries have been around for a very long time and somehow it seems to catch the popular imagination, or media imagination, at least, when a new bit of knowledge is revealed about them. There seems to be something about human psychology that life in the “Old Times” was really basic and I think it must come as a shock when evidence is found that humans have been doing the same things for millennia. A piece of news caught my eye. A 2000 year old building has been revealed in Cologne, which puzzled archaeologists for a while. Comparing it with other buildings, they decided that it was most likely to be a library building, as it had many small compartments just the right size to hold a few scrolls. Around 20,000 of them.
Of course, there is no record of what type of library this was or what sort of documents were held there. for example was it philosophical or religious teachings, legal documents or the mundane bureaucratic records of a governing body. Was it for the use of all, or a select few? Was there a Librarian that looked after these documents? we can only speculate, but what ever they were, the knowledge that they held was considered important enough for them to be neatly housed in a stone building.
Another library doing the rounds on Social Media is the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. I remember seeing this a long time ago, as a child. Hereford Cathedral was one of the places that I really liked visiting, along with Cyfarthfa Castle and Monmouth Museum. I was an unusual child. The Chained Library is so called because the books are chained to the shelves. Apparently the library was built this way in the 1600’s and the cathedral’s medieval manuscripts were rebound and re-shelved – modernisation at the time, no doubt.
As I recall, the library was situated up a narrow spiral staircase, in a small dark room, with the shelves looking very dark and very, very old (was very, very young). It was unusual to find it open, and there was a guide to take you up there. It certainly added to sense of mystery and uniqueness of the collections. It seems as though they have been cleaned and re-housed. Better for preservation, no doubt and accessible to more people, but rather a shame, I feel, to lose that feeling of something exciting and special.
A third library, I came across last week. This is a tiny library, and it is the space itself that enchanted me, more than the collection of books inside it. It is in a turret of Ferniehirst Castle, designed in the 1600’s and housed the private collection of the laird. Completely circular, with shelves reaching the elaborately carved ceiling, it felt like a little private chapel to knowledge and learning. And the natural habitat of a librarian.
By Victuallers [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Today, in this time of efficiencies and austerity it seems that library buildings are too costly to maintain, or too costly to fill with staff, and some people consider them unnecessary because knowledge is held on the internet. However, our ancestors know that knowledge needed to be put somewhere safe. Safe for the container of the knowledge, scrolls, books, other documents, and safe for the person reading that knowledge. I believe that there will always be place in the world for library buildings. 2000 years of their history shows that humans care about them.